My mother may have had a stroke, God forbid.
On Monday, my parents were taking the dog for a walk and on the way home, my mother felt tired. Upon lying down, she noticed a strange thing. All vision in her right eye went dark for a few minutes. As of now she feels well, and she can see just fine. However in the coming days, she’ll go in for tests and hopefully they’ll find the issue and that it is benign.
After hearing about it from my mom, I spoke to my dad, a retired neurologist. He relayed to me what he suspected happened, and from what I could follow, I’m reassured… more or less. However, it was the next piece of information that caused me to make a double take.
“Her echocardiogram will be on Wednesday, the 16th. “
“Oh… that’s odd.” I baited as I looked at my Chabad calendar a mere foot and a half from my face. “That’s an important day in the Jewish calendar.”
“And why is that?” My father replied with the obligatory tone of here Ben goes again.
It was at that point I mentioned that this year Wednesday, March 16th will be the Fast of Esther, the day that leads into Purim. The thought that I would be fasting on the day my mother would be taking an important medical test has a sort of poetic justice
I expected to be able to hear my father’s eye roll over the phone. But instead he responded, “Actually there’s an even bigger Jewish event that is happening on March 16th.”
“That was my bar mitzvah date. March 16th, 1963.”
I was floored. Perhaps for any other holiday, I could write it all off as a coincidence. But the core philosophical idea of Purim is coinciding events. That’s the whole point! Even the name Purim refers to a Pur or Lottery which decided the date of the Jews extermination – Adar 13 – which just so happens to be the day we’re talking about! (Purim itself is observed the day after to celebrate the victory.)
I tried to explain this to my father, but was only met with humoring and incredulity.
As I mentioned before, my father is a retired neurologist. A retired pediatric neurologist. Meaning he has witnessed very young children suffering from unpreventable medical complications. To him, an all powerful, all loving God is an impossibility. Instead, he subscribes to the theology found in the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Written by Conservative Rabbi Harold Kushner, the book believes that God is all loving, but not all powerful, and thus is unable to stop the evil in the world. It also then resigns that evil such as children suffering from unpreventable disease is a function of random chance, aka bad luck.
There is not a person on this planet who can give you a satisfying answer as to why such innocent suffering could be justified in the eyes of an all powerful God. Jewish tradition can give you possible reasons, but ultimately we do have to accept that our understanding of creation is but a keyhole view of a much bigger picture. But despite that frustration, Judaism fully believes that God is behind the scenes guiding the events of every moment. This is the message of Purim.
A Bigger Picture
The belief of random chance is the very antithesis of everything we stand for. So much so, it is the outlook of the Jews’ arch nemesis, Amalek. When Haman (a descendant of Amalek) selects the day of the Jews destruction, he does so via a lottery just to make the point that their demise will come as an effect of randomness.
The Shabbos prior to Purim we read Parshas Zachor, the verses from Devarim which recount Amalek’s attack of the Jewish people in the wilderness. In the verse, the language says:
You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt, how he chanced upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear, when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear God. (Devarim 25:17-18)
In the Megillah, Mordechai urges Esther to risk her life to beseech King Ahasuerus noting:
And who knows whether it was just for such a time as this that you attained the royal position! (Megillas Esther 4:14)
These two verses present a contrast in ideologies. In one, a misfortune occurs (Amalek’s attack), and the Torah describes it as chance. The other takes a misfortune (Esther being taken captive by the King) and suggests a meaning.
Cause and Effect: the Opposite of Bad Luck
When we look at life as random, our fortunes and misfortunes are detached from our choices and actions and it ultimately means what we do doesn’t really matter. This outlook affirms that all that matters is what is happening in the present, so we should live for present pleasures. The incessant parties at the beginning of Megillas Esther demonstrate this.
But as the story continues, the characters who embody this philosophy, Haman and King Ahasuerus, find themselves plagued. Haman can’t get over the fact that Mordechai won’t bow down to him despite his unbridled wealth and success. King Ahasuerus finds himself tormented by Queen Esther’s teasing of a revelation of which she continues to delay.
The two react very differently. Haman continues on his path of immediate concern and chooses to act by building a gallows for Mordechai. King Ahasuerus on the other hand chooses to reflect. According to the Midrash, in his obsessing over what Esther wants to tell him, he comes to the conclusion that she and Haman want to assassinate him. Wondering how no one has leaked this plot, he asks himself, “When was the last time someone tried to assassinate me?” So he pours over the history books and realizes his mistake. He never rewarded Mordechai.
King Ahasuerus goes through the exact process we should be doing if we want to understand the messages Hashem is trying to send us. And because of that reflection he lives while Haman gets hung out to dry, quite literally.
Does the convergence of the fast of Esther, my dad’s bar mitzvah, and my mom’s echocardiogram mean anything?
I don’t know. Maybe it is all a coincidence. But given that Purim is the holiday of coincidences, I think it is worth mulling over. Perhaps it is imperative I take the fast seriously this year. Perhaps it is a message for my father to learn more about the Purim story. Perhaps my mom temporarily losing her sight is an indication she’s partially blind to some of the things she should be paying attention to. Or maybe it was all just an inspiration for this blog post.
The reason for our coincidences will likely remain hidden to us. But that doesn’t mean self reflection is fruitless. When someone is on a path of spiritual connection, they are open to receiving input because they are growth minded. Whether that is noticing patterns in the physical world or patterns in the seemingly disparate moments in their life. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler puts it this way,
Those of us who have difficulty in “seeing through” the veil of nature may on occasion be shown miracles operating within the natural framework. Coincidences may multiply to such an extent that a rational person will recognize the hand of God behind the scenes. (Strive For Truth, Hidden Miracles)
By understanding the reality that God is not only involved in the events of our lives, but orchestrating them, it insists that life has both purpose and destination. That this is all for something. There will never be a smoking gun piece of evidence that proves the existence of God. But if we want to see His guiding hand in the events of our lives, world history, and especially Jewish history, we don’t have to look that hard to see it.